Phonological Awareness 101: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about This Foundational Reading Skill

By: | 07/23/2020
Category: Instruction

Phonological and phonemic awareness involve the understanding that spoken language can be broken down into smaller units such as sentences, phrases, words, syllables, onsets, rimes, and phonemes (sounds). And research shows that young children must develop phonological and phonemic awareness to learn how to read proficiently.

In “Alphabetic anxiety and explicit, systematic phonics instruction: A cognitive science perspective,” cognitive and developmental psychologist Marilyn Adams describes how phonological awareness proceeds in a stepwise fashion:

  • Step 1. The perception of individual words in spoken language
  • Step 2. The discernment of the syllables within spoken words
  • Step 3. The awareness that spoken syllables are made up of onsets (all the sounds in the syllable before the vowel) and rimes (the vowel sound in a syllable and every sound following it)
  • Step 4. The awareness of individual sounds, or phonemes, in spoken words
  • Step 5. The ability to manipulate (delete and substitute) individual sounds in spoken words

The Difference between Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness, and Phonics

From these research findings, phonological awareness skills progress from the whole (words in sentences) to the parts of words (syllables, onsets and rimes, and then phonemes in words). Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness may sound similar, but they are not the same thing.

  • Phonological awareness is a much broader term that pertains to hearing and manipulating units of spoken language such as words, syllables, and rhyming elements.
  • Phonemic awareness pertains specifically to the ability to hear and manipulate individual or single phonemes in spoken words and syllables.

Another common misunderstanding is that phonemic awareness is the same thing as phonics. I like to think of phonemic awareness as phonics in the dark, meaning that one can hear the sounds but not see letters. Phonics, on the other hand, involves seeing written symbols, hearing spoken sounds, and linking the two. But children must first learn to hear sounds (phonemic awareness) before they can learn to associate sounds with letters (phonics). As children develop their phonemic awareness skills, it is appropriate and effective to link instruction with letters as soon as possible.

Tips for Teaching Phonological Awareness

Numerous studies have confirmed the effectiveness of several kinds of learning activities to help children develop phonological and phonemic awareness. The following are important reminders for teachers as they plan phonological awareness instruction:

  1. Foster motivation to learn in an atmosphere of playfulness and fun.
  2. Encourage interaction among children through group activities.
  3. Curiosity about language and experimentation should be encouraged. Try spoonerisms where you exchange initial sounds in two words, for example, “Once upon a time, deep in the woods, there lived a family of bee threars (three bears).” Almost always, children will hear these changes and want to correct the teacher’s reading!
  4. Be prepared for differences among students in their developmental acquisition of phonemic awareness.
  5. Quickly move from PA instruction only to including PA instruction linked with letters (phonics), as this is particularly effective.
  6. Use digital games and technologies to help students match sounds to pictures and eventually to letters to provide much-needed practice and feedback on their ability to hear individual sounds in spoken words.

Spend enough time but not too much on phonemic awareness.

Research provides the following guidance on how much is enough and how much is too much.

  • Use assessment tools to determine areas of need and save time.
  • Teach up to 18 hours of instruction total, but not more.
  • Short lessons work best (five minutes or less).
  • Focus on one or two PA skills at a time.

Once students acquire a PA skill, instruction can move to the next phonological awareness skill, beginning with spoken-word awareness and moving to manipulation of sounds within spoken words.

Have children practice counting words.

Oral word counting activities can help students develop the ability to detect and isolate words in speech.

  • For example, dictate a sentence such as, "The children were playing baseball."
  • Children clap the number of words (5) with the teacher.
  • Next, ask the children to push a plastic marker from a group of ten plastic markers at the bottom of their desks to the top to represent each word they hear (5).
  • After this, prompt the children to hold up the number of fingers representing the number of words they heard in the sentence.

Practice breaking words into syllables.

Segmenting is also important. Consider the following segmenting sequence:

“I will say the whole word—shadow. Next, I will stretch the word to count the speech parts—ssshhhaaa doohh. I count two. Now you try it. I will say the whole word—mustache. Now, let’s stretch the word together and clap the speech parts—mus-tache. How many times did we clap?”

University of Minnesota Professor Stuart Yeh found that instructional time in kindergarten is best spent on blending and segmenting tasks rather than on rhyming tasks to develop phonemic awareness. Segmenting and blending spoken words sound-by sound or phoneme-by-phoneme is the most abstract task and is the first and only level of phonemic awareness. Segmenting individual sounds in spoken words is a necessary prerequisite to spell. Blending, on the other hand, is a necessary prerequisite to read.

Don’t forget onset and rime.

The next phonological awareness level calls for segmenting and blending onsets and rimes. For example, in the word sat, “s” is the onset and “-at” is the rime. Similarly, in the first syllable of the word turtle, “t” is the onset and “-ur” is the rime. This activity is easily done in the context of poetry (teaching rimes with rhymes).

An alternative parsing of syllable parts other than onset and rime is called body and coda. In this parsing of a syllable, the body includes the initial consonant(s) while the vowel and the coda is everything following the vowel. For example, in the syllable/word /sit/, the body is /si/ and the coda is /t/. Research has shown that body and coda are easier for younger children to blend than onset and rime.

Practice categorizing, removing, adding, and substituting sounds.

The final phonemic awareness skills taught are phoneme manipulation activities such as the phonemic categorization (cat, can, ball—which one doesn’t have the same sound at the beginning of the word?), deletion (cat, take away the /t/; what’s left /ca/), addition (at, what would we have if I add a /k/ sound? cat), and substitution tasks (cat, take away the /k/ sound and replace it with an /r/ sound. What word do we have now? rat)

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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